Peter Ungár’s Tasting Counter in Somerville is to food what a symphony concert is to music: customers arrive with ticket in hand, and all that’s expected of them is to sit back and experience, savor, enjoy, and perhaps broaden their tastes. The chef’s nine-course dinners, crafted in full view just feet away from diners, are the culmination of years of cooking at home and abroad, offering a tapestry of tastes and textures that Ungár (SHA’98) and his wife and business partner, Ginhee Ungár (CAS’00), refer to not as a meal, but an experience.
Dominated by seasonal, and whenever possible, local ingredients, the menu also reflects the couple’s commitment to leaving the faintest carbon footprint and inviting diners to engage all their senses and take their time. It is a reprieve from the grab-and-go rhythms of urbanites’ busy lives and a chance for Ungár to teach people that honest food is a gift, while at the same time demystifying its preparation. If words like “responsibly sourced” don’t fire up your taste buds, Tasting Counter, he hopes, will change that.
Since age 17, Ungár has known he would become a chef. A native of Fort Worth, Tex., he has immersed himself in every aspect of cooking. He has worked at restaurants both haute and plebeian, mastering skills from garde manger to poisonnier to saucier to chef de partie. As a student at BU, he landed an internship in the kitchen at Aujourd’hui, the now shuttered restaurant at the Four Seasons, where he worked his way up through the kitchen. By the time he left, Ungár was cooking private dinners for guests. In 2003, he launched a creative, intimate catering operation called the Dining Alternative, where he prepared elaborate meals in clients’ homes. He then labored in the kitchens of two Michelin-starred restaurants in Paris, Le Grand Vefour and Le Celadon, before returning to Dining Alternative.
Combining all these influences like a master chef’s delicate reduction, he launched Tasting Counter as chef-owner in July 2015, offering a fixed-price, nine-course tasting menu with wine, beer, sake, or nonalcoholic beverage pairings that delivers a multisensory dining experience as it entertains, educates, indulges, and broadens the palates of patrons who are invited to ask questions as the dishes sizzle and simmer.
Located in a back corner of the cavernous Aeronaut Foods Hub (the building is a former envelope factory just outside of Union Square), which includes Aeronaut Brewing Company, supplier of all the beer Ungár serves, Tasting Counter looks at first glance like the set of a cooking show. Its 20-seat horseshoe-shaped counter affords every diner an up-close view of the proceedings. A sliding wall separates restaurant and brewery, filling the space with sizzling sounds and complex aromas. With its $195 fixed-price menu that includes food, beverages, gratuity, and tax, Tasting Counter is committed to offering dishes that reflect partnerships with local purveyors, to “tell a meaningful story,” in Ungár’s words.
Diners purchase tickets online, thus no need to bring their wallets. “Ours is the only local restaurant that provides the price up front,” says Ginhee, who majored in women’s studies at BU. “With any other restaurant, you get your sticker shock after. We want guests to focus solely on the dining experience.”
As Tasting Counter’s website says, the restaurant operates under a “0 carbon, 50 local, 100 natural” philosophy, and “strives toward a zero-carbon footprint, sources a minimum of 50 percent of its products from within Massachusetts, and offers only all-natural foods and wines.” And those hundreds of mason jars that line the surrounding shelves? They are not props, but local vegetables and fruits waiting to be used in dishes served through the winter.
Since opening, the restaurant has attracted a devoted clientele and enthusiastic reviews. Among some of Ungár’s past menu offerings: sea bream over artichoke and mushroom purees, topped with artichoke crisps and shavings of truffle. Duck liver bonbons. Scallops in the shell with citrus-and-avocado-oil cream. As guests observe and ask questions, Ungár, chef de cuisine Marcos Sanchez, formerly of Jamaica Plain’s Tres Gatos, and the rest of the team of six go about the delicate work of curing meats, creating sauces, and hand-rolling pasta.
Ungár and Sanchez are happy to tweak recipes to accommodate dietary preferences and allergies, but the menu itself remains secret, unfolding course by course over each of the two nightly sittings (6 and 8 p.m.). A three-course lunch is also offered at a fixed price of $65 on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays, from 1 to 2 p.m. Similar to Omakase-style (from the Japanese phrase meaning “I’ll leave it to you”), “We recommend entrusting us to create an innovative dining experience for you,” says Ungár.
“You’re sitting in our kitchen, surrounded by our pantry,” says Sanchez, who explains that the menu is fish-heavy because fish is “a healthy, delicious, and wonderful product to work with.” Sanchez and Ungár are always scouting out new purveyors, working with new local farmers, and following leads on “who is growing fun stuff.” In addition to the requisite sommelier, the restaurant even has a mushroom foraging expert. This fall, Ungár and Sanchez have been preparing dishes with locally gathered pine mushrooms and autumn berries, which they use to make vinegars and a nonalcoholic brew for customers who prefer it. Sanchez compares each meal to a performance, a sum of all the dishes, each its own act. “People say a course has no texture, and we say, ‘Wait until the next one.’”
Ungár and Ginhee want patrons to feel as if they’re eating in the couple’s home. And they want customers, who tend to clean their plates with every course, to feel satisfied without feeling full. “We don’t want to overwhelm our guests,” says Ginhee. The Ungárs, who have three children, prefer to spend their rare evenings off not cooking for themselves, opting instead for places they loved near BU, including Carlo’s Cucina Italiano or Le’s, both in Allston. “During the day here it’s prep, prep, prep. But people are totally into what we’re doing,” she says.
“Our mission,” according to Ungár, “is to establish the shortest distance between the production of food and you.”
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